The recount of the closest U.S. Senate race in Minnesota history will be directed by a freshman elections chief -- a liberal DFLer who won election two years ago after accusing his Republican predecessor of bringing partisan bias to her official duties.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie pledges to oversee a fair, accurate and open recount of the nearly 2.9 million ballots in the Senate race.

"Minnesotans have an expectation of a nonpartisan election recount," Ritchie said late last week.

Yet a fight with partisan overtones is shaping up over the recount of the race between U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, and Democrat Al Franken.

On Friday, the Coleman campaign questioned the integrity of the vote counting by citing "improbable shifts" in vote tallies that it said benefited Franken.

Ritchie responded by scolding the Coleman campaign for trying "to create a cloud" over the recount and "denigrating the election process."

Republicans indicate they will be watching Ritchie closely.

"A recount of this magnitude is absolutely huge and it's going to define his time in office," said Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, a critic of Ritchie. "The eyes are going to be very heavy on that office and on Secretary Ritchie."

Ritchie acknowledged that his office will face pressure over the next few weeks, but pledged to resist it.

"People who are the most active have a kind of bias to want to get [results] fast," he said of the recount. "Election administrators have a bias for wanting it correct, transparent and trusted. We know there will be pressure for fast, faster, get it done. We will not be swayed by those demands."

A recount requires ballot verification by precinct in each county and allows the public and representatives of the candidates to watch. Disputes over contested ballots go to the state canvassing board, made up of two state Supreme Court justices, two district court judges and chaired by the secretary of state.

Secretaries of state are elected partisan officials. Yet the composition of the canvassing board and Minnesota law limits the influence of secretaries of state over a recount, said Christian Sande, an attorney who lost the DFL endorsement to Ritchie in 2006.

But Sande said the political affiliation of a secretary of state gives a candidate from a different party an opening to raise doubts about a recount, "whether unfounded or not."

Since Tuesday's election, the vote margin between Coleman and Franken has narrowed, widened and narrowed again. On Friday Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan issued a statement asserting there were "improbable shifts that are overwhelmingly accruing to the benefit of Al Franken," and cited some changes on the heavily Democratic Iron Range.

Ritchie said the shifting tallies were well within the normal range in the days immediately following an election, when county officials double check and verify election night tabulations reported to the secretary of state's office. He accused the Coleman campaign of carrying out "a well-known political strategy," and defended the work of local officials.

"If people want to accuse county elections officials of partisan activity, they better be ready to back it up," he said.

In response, Sheehan said the Coleman campaign has a right to question the recount. "I don't think it's raising a cloud over the process," he said.

Ritchie got high marks for a recount of the primary election this September for state Supreme Court.

"A shout out to the counties and the office of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie for getting this recount done so speedily," said the Minnesota Lawyer Blog. "The retabulation by hand of thousands of ballots in a statewide election is no easy feat, and in this case was carried out with record alacrity."

Political perceptions have been at the heart of past disputes over how secretaries of state administer other aspects of elections.

Ritchie, a longtime advocate for liberal causes, won election in 2006 after accusing the incumbent, Republican and social conservative Mary Kiffmeyer, of acting on her biases during her eight years in office.

"She's making decisions designed to help candidates from her party have a partisan advantage," Ritchie said in an interview before that election. He said Kiffmeyer discouraged turnout of Democratic-leaning voters. She denied it.

When Ritchie took over, Republicans accused him of mixing official and campaign business after he gave his campaign contact information for participants in a civic engagement program sponsored by his office.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles investigated and cleared Ritchie of any wrongdoing, but criticized him for initially failing to be forthcoming with the inquiry.

Ritchie became a liberal advocate in the 1980s when he marched with European and Canadian farm groups in Montreal protesting U.S. trade policies on agriculture.

Before taking office, he pushed to register low-income people and minorities in areas likely to lean Democratic. His National Voice effort to register voters for the 2004 election set the stage for his campaign against Kiffmeyer.

The office under Ritchie has made it easier for military personnel overseas to vote and improved its election results website.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210